Sometimes, the fiercest battles are fought not only in a court of law, but also in the court of public opinion. In the latter arena, some combatants think the most effective weapon isn’t persuasion or even propaganda, but outright intimidation.
For instance, some activists and their allies who were determined to defeat a recent California ballot initiative worked to identify members of groups supporting it, targeting them for psychological and physical abuse.
Their efforts had a chilling effect on actual and would-be supporters of the initiative, prompting many to self-censor rather than incur the wrath of uncivil opponents. When such onslaughts are tolerated, it places our right to free speech in jeopardy.
Resorting to intimidation generally indicates the advocate has a weak position, not to mention a deep ethical deficit.
Plaintiff’s attorney Stephen Tillery may know a thing or two about intimidation. He hoped to reap a bountiful harvest from six Madison County class action lawsuits against makers of atrazine-based weedkillers. Representing the Holiday Shores Sanitary District, he alleged that atrazine runoff poses an unsubstantiated hazard to its drinking water supply.
Without logic or science on his side, Tillery fertilized his complaint with pure speculation and raw emotion, demanding that defendant, Syngenta Crop Protection Services, disclose its memberships in industry groups and identify its lobbyists.
When Syngenta complied, Tillery sent subpoenas to the groups for membership lists, communications with members, and names of contributors.
The groups objected to this infringement of free speech rights and Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder partially sustained their objections. Later the Fifth District Appellate Court upheld the decision.
The Courts struck a blow for free speech and Stephen Tillery lost a possible weapon in an aging, flimsy case. What next? Yelling and pounding the table?